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Q&A with the New York Urban League President and CEO Arva Rice: Why Black people still can't wait

“I think that for America to look at its original disease of racism, it could not have happened without COVID. It literally had to stop and put the whole United States on pause…”
New York Urban League president Arva Rice and Herman Lessard attend Stronger: Girls' Empowerment Day at the Time Warner Center on May 7, 2010 in New York City.
New York Urban League president Arva Rice and Herman Lessard attend Stronger: Girls' Empowerment Day on May 7, 2010 in New York City.Johnny Nunez / WireImage via Getty Images

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to overwhelm New York City early this year and disproportionately infect and kill African Americans and other communities of color, civil rights organizations sought to address the structural issues that the coronavirus was exposing by keeping Black people and others informed and safe.

Chief among them was the New York Urban League, led by its president and CEO Arva Rice, who responded as a de-facto citywide authority. The group organized a series of online conferences around health care disparities, the inequalities in public education and the virus’s weighted economic impact on the lives of African Americans.

Then on May 25, in Minneapolis, George Floyd, 46, a Black father, was killed after then-police officer Derek Chauvin dug his knee into Floyd’s neck for almost eight minutes.

Among Floyd’s last words were, “I can’t breathe,” echoing the last-minute plea made by New Yorker Eric Garner, who died in 2014, after being placed in a chokehold by then-police officer Daniel Pantaleo.

What has followed since Floyd’s death is nothing short of a sea change, with protests and demonstrations intent on transforming American society.

Rice pivoted to the crisis and issued a statement titled, “Why Black people still can’t wait,” which read in part:

“As we as a country and our beloved New York City work to recover from the impact of COVID-19, we have again been reminded of America’s original disease – racism. Institutionalized racism that led to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Just like institutionalized racism led to the deaths of Emmett Till, Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo. Our country has a problem and we can only address it by working in connection with others to change laws, develop policy and change attitudes that can lead to healing and greater levels of mutual respect.”

NBCBLK caught up with Rice recently.

NBCBLK: Are the changes we are seeing around police reform going to stick and bring about change or are they just Band-Aids?

RICE: What is particularly different about this moment in time, we have had Trayvon Martin, we have had Yusef Hawkins, so why is this set of legislation so quickly going to Albany with an accompanying set of legislation at the federal level and I think it really speaks to the importance of having people of color in those elected positions. The fact is we didn’t have ( U.S. Sens.) Kamala Harris and Cory Booker before, we didn’t have [N.Y. Senate Majority Leader] Andrea Stewart-Cousins and [N.Y. Assembly Speaker] Carl Heastie before, so these are people who understand and who actually had legislation that has been sitting around that hasn’t been able to move forward … there is an opportunity for the legislation to stick because we actually have more people representing our communities in positions of power. Now will we have pushback? Absolutely!

NBCBLK: When some folks hear ‘defund the police’ they hear there should be no police at all, while others hear there should be things that the police should not be called upon to address. And will some of the resources from expansive police budgets be diverted?

RICE: You’re right that when people tend to look at ‘defund the police’ we have no police and that’s not what we’re pushing for. Crime has decreased in this city but police budgets have grown exponentially. So, what we are looking for is a bigger investment in our communities. We feel that we should have summer youth employment programs and that should be taken from the police budget. So, it’s not ‘defund the police’ at least from the perspective of the New York Urban League. There are definitely people who think it should be completely disbanded. I personally would like to be able to call somebody if someone is robbing my house. I think we want to look at some of the different things that the police are doing, oftentimes, the police end in situations beyond their capacity when they are dealing with people who are suffering from mental illness and that’s the time when things have gone wrong. We don’t think police need to be in schools; we don’t think police need to be called when it’s a mental health issue.

NBCBLK: One of the first things that Mayor Bill de Blasio did as the pandemic sapped municipal resources was to say there would be no summer programs. Can you now go back to him and say, ‘Hey, we really need these for youth?’”

RICE: Yes, I think that has been part of the most recent announcement that’s been made by the mayor’s task force on race and equity, and they have made the suggestion that some of human services functions be covered by the allocation to the New York City Police Department. That’s the push that we have been on and will continue to be on. We don’t have any number, is it a $100 or $100 million, we’re not sure, but will continue to push.

NBCBLK: We both speak about the twin viruses of COVID-19 and racism. There hopefully will be a vaccine for the coronavirus sooner than later, but will there be a vaccine for racism? I look at your statement and it poses the question, what do we need from white people? What we are seeing now in the protests, demonstrations and marches in urban centers and small towns are more and more people other than Black people taking part. And we love your word “co-conspirators,” not allies. Are you confident we will have the co-conspirators we need?

RICE: I think racism’s vaccine is the activation of these co-conspirators and I think that it’s wonderful that all these laws are being put in place and people will be able to do a victory lap around some of the things they have been able to put around criminal justice. But criminal justice is one place, and let’s say we’re done with that, which we’re not. But let’s say we are, the next step is we have to go into housing. OK, now that we’re done with housing, now we have to deal with the prison industrial complex, looking at how Black people are put in prison more often. There are still all these different other places and spaces that racism still permeates. And I think that if we can take advantage of this particular moment … I have had more white women call me over the course of the last two weeks than I have in my life, people wanting to have conversations, people wanting to check in to see if I’m OK. So, if we can take advantage of this moment, we won’t get all the way there, but this can be a moment where we make great strides.

NBCBLK: If you look at what happened in Georgia on election day, how do we protect the integrity of democracy and the vote in November and let the people have their say?

RICE: Well, I definitely think we have to support organizations like the one led by Stacey Abrams and protect the vote, which I think is insane that we’re saying that in 2020. We have found an evolved way of doing the poll tax; we found an evolved way for making people to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap in order to keep Black folks from being able to vote and exercise their constitutional right. Even in New York state, if we feel things are OK, we need to support organizations that are working in other places that are having issues and we have to connect the issues that are happening in the street with voting. A lot of people don’t know the district attorney’s role in criminal justice and they think the president has more powers that he does and he’s trying to act like he has more powers than he does at the local level. Voting for the president is important but all those down-ballot elections have a big impact on whether a person is actually charged in a case or not charged in a case, such as what happened with George Floyd. It’s imperative that the connection between COVID and people marching in the street around racism, what’s happening with racism and what’s happening with the voting process.

NBCBLK: Does this moment feel different to you? Are you optimistic?

RICE: What does feel different is it is black and white … what feels different is the numbers of people that are involved and then what feels different is that we have people who look like us that we can hold accountable to make sure that it happens. I think that for America to look at its original disease of racism, it could not have happened without COVID. It literally had to stop and put the whole United States on pause. everybody not be able to go to the movie theater, not be able to go to a play, to go to a sporting event, for America to look at its original sin. No distractions and we were all looking at the same thing at the same time.

CORRECTION: (July 10, 2020, 5:45 p.m. ET): A previous photo caption misidentified the person on the right. He is Herman Lessard, not Donald E. Brown.